Small Talk

There’s a certain default template that typical (American) small talk follows: name, place of origin, college/university, occupation, drilling deeper. Even when I read Reddit or watch The Art of Manliness videos, the conversation topics are pretty standard. There’s a certain sense of comfort that comes with this template — both parties are familiar with these topics, and both can rattle off the answers “like a real human being” without too much mental strain. That may be why the template is so attractive and irresistible.

Here’s a fun strategy for turning this interaction on its head. Instead of launching into this template after asking for each others’ names, one might suggest to the other that no one should mention the typical items in the template — no talk of work, school, or origin. These topics are completely off-limits until later in the conversation. At this point, let the other party know that real creativity is needed to get this moving, and that the goal is to truly know each other better, rather than hear a set of standard forgettable facts. Suggest that they bring up things about themselves that are truly memorable, such as unique triumphs, substantial failures, and incredible comebacks. Ask them about what is surprising about them, and this could be a skill, an experience, or a little known fact. See if they can teach something about an unfamiliar topic. When a shared experience or interest comes up (again, unrelated to one of the template topics), revel in this discovery and help each other open up and share more.

This naturally brings up this possible problem: what if the other party does not wish to go along with it? The simplest way to rectify this issue is to leave gracefully. If they somehow still wish to continue this conversation, it’s a little harder (since you effectively took the default topics off the table) — but still doable. The venue and event is a great starting place, since that is a shared experience. Discuss similar events and your intentions to attend others like it. When a natural exit from the conversation is found, graciously thank the conversation partner and move on.

While it is important to have a goal for each conversation, it is equally important to remember that conversations must always have reciprocal value exchange. Hounding someone because you need a deal, a job, or some other urgent need is a poor way to execute a conversation. If something of value can be provided in return, then the other party will be more receptive to requests during a conversation. Your value could simply be the novel way that you approach and have conversations with strangers, which can be refreshing and entertaining. The best conversationalists add to a discussion only when the other party is receptive, and are patient and curious whenever the other party needs to have their say. I believe that striking the right balance and providing value is the way to attain goals in social situations.

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